Sources of Language Conflicts

At some point, it happens to us all: we’ve got something to say, something to contribute to the conversation at hand, and we voice our opinion — and no one understands. So we try again. And we try and try until finally we give up and the discussion moves on just as it would without our input. Why? Everyone in the group speaks the same national language, but in many cases they speak different cultural dialects; their backgrounds are different, their experiences are different, and the way those elements come together frames their point of view, just as we do with ours.

When the stakes are higher than just a soundbite in a conversation, those cultural dialect variations are magnified. For example, if a design team comprised of product designers, marketers, and engineers are working together to create a handheld computer for general contractors and the marketing agent says that the device has to be tough, what does that mean? To the engineer, perhaps that means the housing must be made of a rigid composite material that can withstand the crushing force of a work truck but to the product designer it means that the form language of the device has to visually communicate its durability and reliability in harsh conditions. Both characteristics are relevant, but how can we be sure that the designers understand the engineers and vice versa?

Differentiation in problem-solving approaches is...further exacerbated by differences in cultural dialect.

Let’s take this example a bit further: suppose the marketer is based in London, the designers are in New York, and the engineers are in Germany. On top of this, the manufacturing plant is in Thailand. Obviously there is a need for the exchange of information, and there are numerous ways to do this — document sharing through email, conference calls, video sessions, etc. Each has its place, but there still exist gaps in the dialogue between parties that forces each member of the team to interpolate, or fill in, the missing information. And the way they do so is surely driven by their own take on the scenario. If the manufacturing plant is unable to mold the proper radius on a corner of the general contractor’s computer device and tells the engineering team about it, the engineer may correct the issue by increasing the radius. This small change, however, could be enough of a difference to cause the device to lose its toughness quality, as interpreted by the designers or marketers and, ultimately, the consumer. Certainly the aim of the engineer in this scenario was not to redirect the overall feel and selling point of the device, but to correct a logistical issue with a clearly-defined problem-solving approach.

This differentiation of problem-solving approaches is part and parcel of collaborative teams comprised of members of varying backgrounds and experiences, and is further exacerbated by differences in cultural dialect. John Gooch, who teaches technical and scientific communication at the University of Texas, explains this scenario:

“Conflict, consensus, and resolution are inextricably intertwined in collaboration, and how these elements emerge can tell us much about the formation of a particular group. When experts communicate, they communicate using a language specific to their discipline...other individuals from outside the person’s disciplinary community cannot readily understand this language because they do not possess the vocabulary or the sophisticated theoretical understanding of a person who has received this specialized training”|Gooch, 2005|.

If those involved in the problem-solving process are still in the process of learning their own cultural (professional) dialect such as in the academic setting, another layer of difficulty is placed on the team. This division of specialty and language can be better understood by addressing the traditional — and emerging — forms of collaborative efforts.